Some unexpected sights await visitors to the summer shows normally associated with champion livestock, stunt riders and home-made produce.
In the touring Gallery of Wonder will be inventive and challenging works by leading contemporary artists.
Here, in return for a small admission fee, the intrepid visitor will find insect ‘fairies’ doing battle, an orchid that seems permanently ablaze, a sculpture made from a giant python and St Mary’s lighthouse, Whitley Bay, appearing to shimmer in a chemist’s flask.
And if the black tent with its eye insignia and peep holes looks faintly sinister, an Edwardian-style barker in a bowler hat – and with yet more eye symbols on his dickie bow and waistcoat – will be on hand to encourage curious folk through the flaps.
The Gallery of Wonder, due to make its first appearance at the Northumberland County Show in Bywell on May 25, was given a try-out in the grounds of Newcastle University where fine art lecturer Irene Brown explained its origins.
Irene, who is also an artist, said she started the Gallery of Wonder in 2010 when she was researching into the history of science.
“I was reading a lot about the Age of Wonder, in the 1700s, when people were going out to collect things for their cabinets of curiosity.
“These developed to be the museums we know today. What I liked about these cabinets of curiosity, or wonder, was their eclectic nature.
“They were full of stuff that people had never seen before, like the puffer fish.”
Initially Irene brought together artists and scientists and invited them to display the products of their research in the windows of her studio, “which is a bit of a gallery of wonder in itself”.
She teamed up with exhibition organiser Judith King, of Northumberland-based Arts & Heritage, to gain funding for this special Gallery of Wonder tour from partners including Arts Council England, Northumberland County Council, Berwick Visual Arts and Newcastle University.
Previously Judith organised major art exhibitions at Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, and also at Cragside where Irene, who made the lighthouse flask, was one of the exhibitors.
Judith said she was inspired to take a gallery around the shows by the success of another previous enterprise, The Great Boxing Booth Revival, which proved a popular attraction in 2012 with its modern spin on a favourite Victorian spectator sport.
“We both really loved The Great Boxing Booth Revival and I knew Irene had set up the Gallery of Wonder so we thought, how can we bring these two good things together?
“This is the result. These are very well known artists, many of them internationally known, and we have eight works.
“The artists we approached were very keen to take part but we had to make it very clear that this was not going to be a normal gallery situation.
“Their work would be going into a rural situation with bumpy tracks. We needed the artworks to be portable but we have a small crew. They all took it on board.”
The blazing orchid was made by Mat Collishaw, a friend and contemporary of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin who is fascinated by Victorian illusion and the macabre, while Polly Morgan offered her sculpture made from the skin of a 15ft Burmese python.
Tessa Farmer provided the most intricate exhibit, a cabinet of curiosities containing a flea circus and those warring insect fairies.
“It’s a beautiful piece of work, absolutely exquisite though definitely not cute and cuddly,” said Judith with some relish.
Other contributing artists were Aideen Barry, the Brothers Quay, who are American identical twins, Aura Satz and Mark Fairnington, who was born in Gateshead although Judith didn’t know trhat when she approached him.
Irene Brown, who designed the tent, said: “I grew up in the country and I enjoyed going to agricultural shows. They were the biggest form of entertainment we had.
“I suppose what we are trying to do is take art to a different kind of audience. I’ve always been interested in that.
“Yes, I like showing in galleries but it’s exciting to show work to people who are not versed in ‘art-speak’ and say quite bluntly what they think.
“You have to be brave but it can be useful.”
Anyone not brave enough to venture inside the tent will be encouraged by that barker who, in real life, is Newcastle actor Dennis Jobling.
“I love art,” he confessed. “My wife works in the arts. She’s an associate curator at mima (Middlesbrough’s art gallery).”
Look out for The Gallery of Wonder at shows across Northumberland in the coming months.